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February 21, 2007 E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed


Latest twist from L.A.'s Crais: sidekick as star

"The Watchman" puts an old character in a new spotlight.
Crime story
(Karen Tapia-Andersen / LAT)

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By Scott Timberg, Times Staff Writer

Robert Crais is 20 years into an acclaimed career built around a fictional private detective named Elvis Cole. Elvis is easy to like, friendly and wisecracking. His only bad qualities are a corny sense of humor and a fondness for loud shirts. The Cole books have become bestsellers, earning their author a reputation as heir to the great California detective writer Ross Macdonald.

But lurking at Elvis' side for 10 books has been a laconic, deadly sidekick named Joe Pike. He spends most of his time heavily armed and wearing sunglasses. Crais' new novel, "The Watchman," which comes out next week, puts Pike at the center of the action for the first time.

"Pike has always been this mysterious, enigmatic background character," Crais, with just a touch of his native Louisiana left in his voice, explained recently at a Silver Lake cafe. "But I knew there was more. His presence has been growing with each of the books, and I couldn't deny him anymore."

Although the fun-loving Cole shows up from time to time, effectively warming up the tale, most of this taut, edgy novel concentrates on Pike's attempt to keep a petulant heiress out of danger while she's hunted down by a variety of international criminals. All the while, someone is giving her locations away.

And in the process, the impassive Pike and this Paris Hilton-like rich girl start to find they understand and possibly even like each other.

"The ongoing theme is that people are more than they seem," said Crais, an easygoing and youthful-looking 53. It would be easy, he said, to dismiss both Pike as many do on first meeting him and just as easy to dismiss Larkin, the spoiled young woman he's guarding.

But in "The Watchman," Crais wanted to get into his impassive protagonist's soul.

"That is, why is he pulled so tight, why is he so internal? And to reveal that, I knew I needed a character who could reach him, who could touch those deep places. I wanted to bring the character to a place where I knew he was moved."

Character study

Crais' novels might at first come off as simple page-turners, and they certainly offer the uncomplicated pleasures of any genre fiction. But his emphasis on character, the low-key craft in the language, and storytelling that is both intricate and sturdy take them far above the usual run. The detailed settings also create a kind of running social history of Los Angeles.

And because he feels "way too protective" of his characters and his readers, Crais said he would continue to reject offers to turn the Elvis Cole novels into movies. ("Hostage," a one-off, became a 2005 film starring Bruce Willis.)

Crais, who comes from what he calls a family of "cops and hardhats" and who friends describe as "a loner" and "a southern gentleman," began his career as a novelist in 1987 with his debut "The Monkey's Raincoat." By that point, he'd already had a successful stretch as a TV writer for "Hill Street Blues," "Quincy, M.E." and, near the end, "L.A. Law."

Crais enjoyed his time in TV "one day I'm back in Louisiana, swatting mosquitoes, the next day I'm on a soundstage at Universal" but realized he didn't like collaborating. When he started writing "The Monkey's Raincoat" in the mid-'80s, his success in TV gave him no leg up in finding a publisher.

"It meant absolutely and completely nothing," said his old friend Gerald Petievich, author of the novel "To Live and Die in L.A." "There's an elitist attitude among literary agents and publishers toward TV and movie writers." Crais' books found their audience though at first a small one, which meant a huge pay cut for Crais drawing acclaim from other writers and scoring nominations for mystery awards.

Few lineages have proven as fertile, for writers all over the world, as the hard-boiled tradition associated with Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and the writers of Black Mask magazine, a tradition largely born in California. Crais found it, eventually, to be a trap.

"When I reached what I consider the middle part of my career, I'd written five, six, seven books like that," he said, "and I began to feel constrained by the rigors of the form. It has very specific requirements. The books are typically told in first person, with a knight errant a man on the outside looking in. No family, no attachments. You didn't break time, you never went to another character.

"I just wanted to tell a bigger story, more internal stories." He wanted, that is, "a broader canvas with more colors."

With 1999's "L.A. Requiem," the point of view was all over the place, with elements of police procedurals and thrillers, and flashes forward and back in time.

That book and the ones that came after don't quite have the easy humor and goofy charm of the early novels, but his work became, to most assessments, bigger and deeper.

Kevin Burton Smith, a Palmdale-based critic who edits the Thrilling Detective website, calls the early Crais novels a "post-rock 'n' roll" twist on Robert B. Parker's Spenser books.

But the "cinematic" novels since "Requiem," he said, put Crais in a class of his own. "The big contribution of Crais was to explode the limited point of view."

The plots of the recent books are what Smith calls interwoven. "They aren't just linear, they really are a web. There's so much happening that he has to jump from viewpoint to viewpoint. 'L.A. Requiem' put it all on the line. That book could have flopped and killed off what audience he had."

Crais got, instead, a big bounce in sales and critical respect.

"He tries to stick with one or two interesting characters, and really develops them," said Petievich. Cole and Pike, he says, have more depth than most in the genre. "And they're usually appealing to women. A lot of books like this are just about solving crimes. These are not about crimes, they're about people. That's why they're on the bestseller lists. It's human behavior that people are interested in. You can see crime on Court TV if you want."

Why crime fiction sells

Crais has a theory as to why crime fiction a category in which he includes detective fiction and related genres has reached such a wide audience in nearly every literate culture.

"People seek order in their lives, and none of us have order," Crais said, listing some of the hassles and frustrations of modern life. "The world is chaotic: And what does a cop, or a private eye, do by definition? He comes into chaos and figured out the truth, finds order." Compared with literary fiction, where resolutions tend to be ambiguous, ironic or tentative, crime novels typically offer firm closure. What he's most proud of, Crais said, are the details that seem closer to theater or poetry. Momentsin which people express themselves, or miss the opportunity to; in which characters relate to each other, or choose not to. In the case of Pike and Larkin, it'sin tone of voice and body language.

"When I write these things, what I think I'm writing are the human moments and emotions within the story." Most of us, he said, are not going to strap on .45s and shoot up a house. But we've all met people we felt uncomfortable with, or people we thought we wanted to see into but couldn't, or felt we were getting too close to. It's shared ground for readers and characters."

It's no surprise Crais, who begins writing by 7 in the morning seven days a week, reads widely outside the genre. He loves Hemingway's and J.D. Salinger's short stories, as well as the dark, surreal poetry of Charles Simic. But he's writing crime for a reason he enjoys the way stress and peril strip everything else away from a character. Few of them are quite as unflappable as Pike.

"In crime fiction, we push it to the edge. That's where we live," Crais said. "It's a canvas that allows me to see men and women in extremis. And that's where I want them to be." In "The Watchman," Pike and company are shot at, lied to and confronted with reeking dead bodies.

Those instances of tension and decision reveal everything.

"I get to bring it to an immediate, absolute, diamond-sharp focus. 'The guillotine is about to fall: What will you do?' "


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